Wednesday, July 8, 2020
The formula for these Dick Tracy movies was intriguing - take your standard crime B-movie, add lots of film noir visual style, add a touch of gothic atmosphere, a dash of horror movie imagery and then sprinkle some comic-book weirdness on top. It makes for a delicious concoction.
The trail initially leads Tracy to a low dive known as the Dripping Dagger where he hopes to get some information from Filthy Flora. There’s also a crooked diamond dealer, Percival Priceless, who is almost certainly mixed up in the conspiracy.
Morgan Conway looks wrong for Dick Tracy but his performance feels right. Anne Jeffreys plays Tess, as she did in the first film. This film adds a new comic relief character, Vitamin Flintheart (played by Ian Keith channelling his inner John Barrymore). He acts as a kind of unofficial advisor and takes a more direct part in the investigation on occasion. He’s a genuinely amusing character. The standout performance is by Dick Wessel as the truly chilling Cueball, a guy who gets more homicidal the more bewildered he gets, and he gets very bewildered.
These first two movies do manage to convey at least some of the necessary comic-strip feel, with larger-than-life slightly bizarre villains and some odd and slightly grotesque minor characters. The Dick Tracy films have a unique flavour of their own and it’s a flavour that I find pretty appealing. There really isn’t anything quite like them in the world of 1940s Hollywood B-pictures.
In 1978 the Medved brothers included this movie in their list of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. This is patently absurd (as are almost all worst films lists). It’s a competently made very enjoyable B-movie with a touch of appealing oddness. Dick Tracy, Detective, which I reviewed here, is definitely better but Dick Tracy vs Cueball is fun and it’s still highly recommended.
Thursday, July 2, 2020
Charlie decides to take the whole family (including the thirteen children) to the circus. A man named Kinney, part-owner of the circus, asks for Charlie’s help in relation to death threats against him. It seems Kinney was right to be concerned since that very evening he is found dead in the business wagon. Kinney had alienated just about everybody so the number of possible suspects is embarrassingly large.
It’s almost a locked-room murder. Fans of locked-room mysteries will be disappointed that that aspect of the mystery is quickly cleared up. There is however no need for despair - there are still plenty of puzzles that need solving. And it’s still a cool murder method - the murder weapon was the circus’s ape Caesar.
Charlie gets roped into the investigation and he has Number One Son Lee (played by Keye Luke) to help him. While he’s always a step behind his father Lee does enough to suggest that maybe one day he could have the makings of a real detective. Of course he would be able to do more detecting if he weren’t so distracted by the charms of a lady contortionist (who is less than pleased by his attentions).
As the investigation proceeds it becomes apparent that most of the potential suspects have unexpected but very convincing motives.
This is a film in which we see more of Chan’s home life than usual since we get to see all thirteen Chan children as well as Mrs Chan. And while Lee Chan as usual provides comic relief he’s certainly not a bumbling nitwit. He displays some good observational skills and his ideas are sound even if he makes a few basic errors in putting them into practice.
Warner Oland and Keye Luke are both in fine form.
The circus setting is used to maximum advantage, actually driving the plot rather than just providing a colourful backdrop. Not everybody loves circus movies but I do and circuses and murder always seem to me to a winning combination.
A lot of the outdoor scenes were shot at a real circus and some of the extras are actual circus performers.
Director Harry Lachman went on to direct several of the Sidney Toler Chan movies as well as the very decent 1942 horror flick Dr Renault’s Secret for Fox. He gives this movie plenty of energy. The screenplay by Robert Ellis and Helen Logan provides a solid plot and we get a lot of Chanisms - Charlie’s little homilies which I’m sure he knows are nothing but platitudes but that’s the whole point. Charlie wants the villains to think he’s a harmless windbag.
This movie is included in the Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 2 DVD boxed set. Fox have come up with a pretty good transfer for this movie. They spent a lot of money restoring the Chan movies (and the Mr Moto movies) and it was money very well spent.
There are a few extras including the Charlie Chan at the Movies featurette (which is quite good).
Charlie Chan at the Circus is a very fine entry in 20th Century-Fox’s Charlie Chan cycle. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Jungle Siren stars Buster Crabbe and strip-tease legend Ann Corio and I’ll have more to say about them later.
Two Americans are helping the Free French to build an airfield in Africa. Captain Gary Hart (Buster Crabbe) and Sergeant Mike Jenkins (Paul Bryar) soon discover that there are people who don’t want that airfield built. The chief of one of the local tribes, Chief Selangi, is one of those people but the chief is actually in the pay of sinister Nazi agent George Lukas.
Kuhlaya is beautiful and she’s basically a nice girl, apart from her habit of killing people she doesn’t approve of. She’s not civilised but not entirely uncivilised. She’s your classic jungle girl, caught between two cultures, but she’s as deadly as she is beautiful.
And she is a bit of an unguided missile. She’s also heavily into the concept of revenge.
Of course you know that there are going to be multiple attempts to kill Captain Hart and Sergeant Jenkins. And of course you know that either Captain Hart will fall for Kuhlaya or she will fall for him. In this case it’s Kuhlaya who falls first. For her it’s lust at first sight (she thinks he’s an absolute hunk) but lust can turn pretty easily into love. And Captain Hart is not exactly immune to her savage charms. She’s like a wild animal but she’s also all woman.
Buster Crabbe was extremely good at playing likeable heroes and with his background in serials he would have had no problem working on tight schedules. He wasn’t the world’s greatest actor but he had personality and he had charisma. He also had the kind of looks that women went for in a big way. This movie has Ann Corio to provide eye candy for male audience members and Buster Crabbe provides the eye candy for the ladies (who were undoubtedly pleased whenever he took off his shirt).
If you want to see Jungle Siren you only choices are going to be public domain releases. I saw the Sinister Cinema version. Sound quality is dodgy (plenty of hiss) but the dialogue is always early understandable. Image quality is actually very good. On the whole it’s a perfect acceptable release.
Jungle Siren is a typical low-budget jungle adventure but Buster Crabbe and Ann Corio are enough to make it worth seeing. I’m recommending this one.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
It starts off with a great line of dialogue. Miss Dors steps off the pavement and loses her footing and a passer-by tells her that she almost ended up in the gutter. She gives him this wonderful look, as if she knows all about ending up in the gutter. If you’re going to make a sleazy film you might as well establish the proper mood right at the start.
Nick Biaggi has a number of business interests, none of them honest. He runs a finance company that specialises in offering loans, without any security, to pretty young women. It’s a means of recruiting girls into his real business, white slavery. He recruits a lot of his girls from abroad. To get them passports he has to find husbands for them. Temporary husbands of course.
Now Johnny isn’t stupid. He figures out pretty quickly what the racket is. Nick is bringing in prostitutes (or girls destined to be prostitutes) but he needs British passports for them so they can’t be deported once they start working the streets. Johnny thinks he doesn’t care because he thinks he’s cynical and hardboiled. When he meets his bride-to-be he naturally assumes she’s a tart. He’s amused when she tells him she’s a decent respectable girl.
Johnny has been thinking things through as well. And he doesn’t like the conclusions that he draws. He is after all, technically, married to Malou and he’s not keen on the idea of his sweet little French wife as a streetwalker. But is it too late for Malou, and for Johnny?
This movie boasts an awesome cast. Firstly there’s Diana Dors as Vicki, at the absolute height of her sex goddess phase and looking breathtakingly beautiful. Vicki is a Whore With a Heart of Gold. Well, sort of. She’s cynically realistic but it’s a life that ruined her sister so she’s not exactly happy being a whore. Like Johnny, she’s not as hardboiled as she thinks she is. Odile Versois as Malou is technically the female lead in the picture but Diana Dors was a much bigger name and a much bigger box-office draw, and while Mlle Versois is good it has to be said that Diana Dors effortlessly dominates the movie even in what is technically a supporting rôle (albeit a very meaty and substantial supporting rôle). Dors as always lights up the screen, and in practical terms she is indeed the star.
And finally there’s Eddie Constantine, best remembered from the wonderful French Lemmy Caution thrillers such as Dames Don’t Care. He’s a perfect slightly reluctant hero, a guy who doesn’t really want to do the right thing or get mixed up in other people’s problems but he just can’t bring himself to behave like a louse. It’s a fine performance with plenty of rough-around-the-edges charm.
Look out for Joan Sims (of Carry On fame) in a small part.
For those who like spotting classic cars in movies Nick drives a very cool Aston Martin DB Mark III (which is incidentally the car James Bond drives in the original 1959 novel version of Goldfinger).
There’s some nice hardboiled dialogue. Vicki tells Malou she’s in the entertainment business. Malou, all excited, asks her what she does. Vicki replies, “Entertain.”
This is a hard-to-find movie. The only copy I could get hold of is a slightly dubious grey market version which offers a fairly poor transfer which appears too be pan-and-scan. But it’s a Diana Dors movie so I had to have it. And if you’re a Diana Dors fan you’ll want it as well.
Room 43 is an overheated sex and sin melodrama but it has style, it has fine performances and it works for what it is. It’s sleazy and it’s romantic and it’s thoroughly enjoyable in a slightly disreputable way, and it has an exciting finale as well. Highly recommended.
Sunday, June 14, 2020
Here's the link to my full review.
Tuesday, June 9, 2020
Bob ‘Three Star’ Halsey (Lyle Talbot) is the ace pilot at Trans America Air Lines. He’s the source of constant exasperation to the airline boss Lackey. He drinks too much, gambles too much and gets into too many fights but there’s nothing Lackey can do about it - Three Star is just too good a pilot to fire.
Three Star’s girlfriend is Judy (Ann Dvorak), one of the airline’s stewardesses (yes I know we’re supposed to call them flight attendants these days but in 1934 they were stewardesses). Judy would marry Three Star in a minute if she could convince herself he would make a reliable husband but since she can’t convince herself of any such thing she’s waiting for a miracle that will turn him into husband material. One of the other pilots, George Wexley (Gordon Westcott), is kinda sweet on Judy as well.
That flight could be a flight to disaster. The scientist is carrying a cylinder of the new explosive and it’s obvious that bad guys, probably in cahoots with foreign spies, will stop at nothing to get it. There’s going to be murder and mayhem and Judy will get caught in the middle. And Three Star will do anything to save his girl.
Lyle Talbot, always a wonderfully entertaining actor, is perfectly cast as the brave but irresponsible Three Star. Talbot has the charisma to pull off a rôle like this without any trouble at all. Ann Dvorak is also very good as the good-natured but slightly cynical Judy. There was always just a slight edge of hysteria to Dvorak’s performances but that’s what made her an interesting actress. You always think she might be about to cry, or scream, or kiss someone, or shoot someone. Judy is more than just the love interest for the hero, as she gets to prove she can be pretty resourceful as well.
OK, the plot is at best workmanlike and there isn’t much of a mystery but the characters are engaging. We want things to work out between Three Star and Judy because they’re likeable and we believe in them. There’s a spy thriller element but the canister of explosive is really just a McGuffin. What matters is that there’s something that the bad guys are prepared to kill for.
Alpha Video’s DVD is pretty good. The transfer is very acceptable indeed.
Murder in the Clouds is just plenty of good clean fun. Highly recommended.
Thursday, June 4, 2020
Melinda Grey (Elizabeth Taylor) is a young American girl in London in 1949. She meets a dashing British army officer, Major Michael Curragh, and is swept off her feet. They are soon married. The marriage is a happy one until Melinda discovers Michael’s dark secret. He is a Soviet spy. There are no spoilers involved here. All this information and more is revealed on the poster. The viewer knows the details of Michael’s secret almost from the start. The suspense comes from the fact that we know that sooner or later Melinda will find out, and the consequences are likely to be awkward for all concerned. To say the least.
This was about the time that Robert Taylor was just starting to break away from conventional matinee idol rôles and beginning to play more complex and much darker characters (he made the excellent The Bribe in 1949 also). He does reasonably well here. From the start Michael is a bit obsessive, the sort of man who might have a darker side. And he’s just a little secretive about his past, or at least reluctant to disclose details. We do learn that he is Irish, which is about as close as the film comes to giving him a motivation for being a spy.
It may seem a little odd that Robert Taylor, an American, gets cast as a British Army officer while Englishwoman Elizabeth Taylor gets cast as an American. Fortunately neither of them worries too much about accents (the modern obsession with accents was not yet in evidence in 1949). Robert Taylor was more than twice Elizabeth Taylor’s age at the time. It has to be said that he does more with his rôle than she does with hers.
Wilfrid Hyde-White is delightfully amusing as always in a small part. A very young Honor Blackman plays Melinda’s best friend Joyce, who never quite trusts Michael.
This is an attempt at the kind of espionage suspense thriller laced with dangerous romance (and with just a hint of sadism) that Hitchcock had so much success with in the 40s and 50s.
Unfortunately Victor Saville, who directed Conspirator, is no Hitchcock. All the plot ingredients are there in Sally Benson’s script but the suspense never comes close to Hitchcockian levels, and Conspirator lacks the dazzling set-pieces that enliven even Hitchcock’s lesser films.
There are complicated themes of conflicting loyalties and cross-betrayals that are hinted at but perhaps needed to be developed a bit more.
The Warner Archive release offers a very good transfer without any extras.
So is this movie worth seeing? If you’re fan of Robert Taylor in his dark and brooding mode then the answer is probably yes. And if you’re a fan of Elizabeth Taylor it’s a chance to see her at the height of her youthful beauty in one of the early grown-up rôles. Since I’m a fan of both I enjoyed the film even if it didn’t reach any great heights. So I’ll give it a qualified recommendation.